Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A lame line at the checkout counter

Over the years, but lately in hyperdrive for some reason, I’ve noticed people going off on a very specific gripe. It goes something like this:

“So there I was in the checkout line, and this woman was paying for stuff with food stamps/Louisiana Purchase card. And she had an iPhone! Can you believe that?!!”

The insinuation being, of course, that this woman has terrible spending priorities and us righteously bootstrapped citizens should give her a lecture rather than our tax dollars.

(Other versions of this story refer to spinning rims and gold teeth. But let’s pretend this isn’t a case of credit card-slinging white people hypocritically bashing black people for buying things they can’t afford.)

I get tired of these express value judgments. To listen to these people, you’re abusing the system if you have anything at all.

To begin with, food stamps aren’t exactly a gravy train — you have to fill out a lot of forms and meet many qualifications to get them; they work only at certain stores and for a narrow range of items; and change is limited. President Reagan used to tell a story about how someone would buy an orange with food stamps, get change and then buy vodka with the change. It doesn’t work that way.

And neither does the notion that there is a clear-cut, linear spectrum of items that people should own only at certain economic checkpoints. That ties in with the corporate-ladder view of life, with its various power-ups and where the only direction is up.

I can’t believe anyone in this economy still subscribes to this nonsense.

You don’t know that woman’s situation. People fall on hard times. Maybe she bought the iPhone when she was doing better. Maybe she got it as a gift or as a hand-me-down. Maybe she still can afford to squeak the bill for now. Maybe someone close to her is helping her pay the bill so she still has a line of communication. Hell, maybe she’s borrowing it! What is she supposed to do, just get rid of it? Put it in a drawer until she reaches a socially acceptable economic threshold for owning the device? Keep switching her line on and off (which can be more expensive than not doing that)? Sell the phone and eat for maybe a week?

Also, there’s no telling what else she’s given up or has never had in the first place. She may have literally nothing in her house or apartment. I’ve known people like that. I’ve also known people who judge people like that. It’s one thing if a person on assistance is blowing money irresponsibly (though seriously, how often is that the case?) — it’s another entirely to berate someone in poverty when you don’t know the circumstances.

If you can walk into an impoverished person’s empty apartment, notice the ancient 12-inch TV on the floor is hooked up to basic cable and blast the person for having cable, ask yourself if financial acumen is really what you’re upset about. Then ask yourself if you are actually better than the person whom you judge.

And hope you’ll never find yourself in a position to find out.

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